Dances with Dirt 50K – A recap
The story of my first (and only) Ultra Marathon is epic. I know that no how long this post is, how many pictures I include, or how detailed my writing is, I’ll never truly be able to capture the day for you. But alas, I will try. Read on my friends.
Chapter 1: We slept in!
JD and I arrived home at 1:15am from our gala. We had spent the night with good friends, in support of a good friend and despite knowing what lay ahead of me, I had a hard time pulling ourselves away. But I set my alarm for 3:15 and hoped two hours of sleep, plus an hour in the car would be enough to power me through this 50K Ultra Marathon.
At 5:43am, I awoke and looked at my phone. Holy shit. We slept in! Just like the scene in Home Alone where they almost miss their flight to Paris, JD and I ran around our house in record time. I threw my shoes in my bag and we were in the car within minutes. I texted the girls and then called Christi. She asked the race directors if there could be a late start but they said no. So we came up with a plan: Christi would bring my bib with her and I would meet them at the first meeting point that our cheerleaders (Kelly, Jake and JD) had planned out. At the time we thought it was around mile 7. As JD drove like a Nascar driver down to Brown County, I was a mess. I kept repeating “I can’t believe this is happening.” We figured out that his alarm never went off, and mine either wasn’t ever set or I turned it off in a slumber. But regardless, we were late. I told JD “I was supposed to be an Ultra Marathoner today.” I was gutted thinking I would only do 22 miles. But he responded “And you will do it. You’ll just add the miles onto the end.” So that was the plan and my spirits lifted. This was just part of the adventure right? I was going to find 31 miles that day no matter what.
I changed into my running clothes in the car and we made it to Gnaw Bone, IN in record time. We met up with Kelly and Jake and estimated we had about 20 minutes before we’d see the girls. But as I am in the nasty, campground bathroom, I heard Jake yell “FREEMAN!!!!” They were rounding the corner just minutes after we arrived. We had read the map wrong and they were actually at mile 5.2. Even better for me. So I pinned on my bib and the three of us took off.
As you can see from the pictures, we had planned our outfits. All black, camo bandanas on the arms, and Christi and I wore matching socks. I love running in tall socks because 1) I think they are cute and 2) thought it would be great for navigating the brush we’d run through. I was right. They definitely protected my legs from the sticks and thorns. As we started running together, they told me of their Friday night, asked about the gala and talked of the first 5 miles. Apparently they were pretty muddy. They also told me that our plan was to walk up the big hills and run every other chance we could get. This part of the course was pretty great. Though there were hills, they were rolling so we were able to run up and down them pretty consistently. I started off in front as I had a bit more energy (given I was 5 miles behind), Christi was behind me and Meg behind her. The thing about this course is that yes, it was a trail. But there were rocks and roots and hairpin turns. If you took your eyes off the ground for even a second, you’d trip. And trust me when I say that happened often. We’d hear the common noise of stubbing a foot and then “ouch” or “shit” or some sort of grunt. All three of us did it often but I was the first one to actually go down. I twisted my ankle and it hurt, but I was in the middle of a good story. So I shook it off and kept talking. (And running)
Speaking of stories, we did tell some good ones. We laughed about our siblings and the pranks and games we played. We confessed about our imaginary friends. We kept the discussion lively which did help pass the miles. Before we knew it, we saw our friends. They were navigating that course like a boss. Every time they could get to a crosspoint, they did. And we LOVED seeing them. Kelly is responsible for the fantastic pictures we have and all three of them (plus the adorable dog AC Slater) kept our spirits high.
Given the hectic nature of my morning, I still don’t think it had hit me that we were going to be running for 31 miles. In fact, this entire week (year?) I really haven’t stressed about this race. My mindset was that I was trained for a marathon, surely I could add 5 more miles right? Especially with no real time goal? So as I looked at my GPS watch and saw the miles slowly ticking by, it finally hit me what we were trying to do. In fact, it hit me like a ton of bricks. And the realization freaked me out. So I pushed the thought out of my head and tried my best to stay positive.
Chapter 3: Lookout Point and blueberry donuts
This course is in the middle of the woods. Everywhere you looked were trees, brush, branches, leaves, dirt, hills. So we started getting good and figuring out where our cheer squad would be because we’d see a clearing and sunlight up ahead. And even better, we’d hear Jake’s booming voice screaming for us. We’d respond with hoots and hollers so by the time we got to them, we all had smiles on our faces. And this next spot was just gorgeous. Lookout point. So we took a nice long break. Kelly told us that they had been talking to all the runners and everyone just had the best attitude. They were happy and carefree and relaxed. So we were too. I drank water. We all ate the best donut holes ever (glazed with blueberry inside!). We took pictures. I am not sure what mile we were at here, because there were so few mile markers. But I remember being really happy. Excited. And ready for the continued adventure we had ahead.
Chapter 4: And then there were two
The next time we’d see our fans was around 17.9 miles. So we had quite a few to get through. We were still doing a lot of running, but we’d walk up all the hills. And I know it may seem I complain about hills a lot. But you can see from the pictures, we were pretty high up. And the hills were everywhere. The downhills were nice as long as the trail was wide and not covered in slippery rocks so you could actually run down it. At mile 15 (my mile 10), Christi looked at her watch and sort of panicked. She really wanted to PR this race since she did the HUFF 50K in December at a 7:30. By the looks of it, we were going too slowly for that to happen. She felt great and wanted to push it. Meghan and I knew we were not going to keep up as we liked our strategy up until this point. So with some trepidation, she pulled ahead and went on for it. We hated that she was going to have to finish alone, but we didn’t want to hold her back. We encountered another runner around the time she left us and he yelled “What are you two doing!? This is a 3 person race. You speed it up and catch her! Actually girls. Great job. Have fun” It was pretty hilarious.
But this part of the course was tough and Meg and I were discouraged. We wanted to run and yet every turn was another hill. And our legs were already feeling it. There were a few clearings where we’d pick it up, but overall, we just felt like we were taking FOR. E. VER. to get through each mile. And our attitudes took a dip.
Chapter 5: The Bird Shit Mile
Despite being in the middle of the woods the entire time, we really didn’t see any animals. And trust me, when I could pull my eyes off the trail, I was looking for them. We did see quite a few chipmunks. (Chippy and Chappy) So when I all of a sudden felt something wet on my hand, I assumed it was water. And when I looked down and saw a red berry color I thought maybe I had somehow squished a berry in my hand. But then I realized what it was. It was bird shit. A bird shit on my hand, and had recently eaten some berries. Cool.
Chapter 6: I Wanna Quit
To further set the scene of this race, I can tell you that the weather was pretty perfect. We were constantly shaded by trees and the humidity was low. There were definitely not enough aid stations and I wish I had packed my fuel belt so I could have had water more often. And though there were 4 separate races going on at the same time (relay, marathon, 50k and 50 miler), the paths did not cross often. So we were usually alone. Everytime we saw another runner, we got excited just to feel like we weren’t lost in the woods on our lonesome. The course was pretty well marked and it was our job to follow the pink flags. Sometimes the trail was obvious, other times it wasn’t but we did NOT want to get lost.
Around mile 16.5 (my mile 11.5), I received a text from JD asking if we were ok. Ouch. Bad sign. We were taking forever. The thing is, we ran every chance we got. We were still panting and sweating and working hard. We just couldn’t run when we’d have to climb over fallen tree trunks, or up steep hills. The cheer squad was at mile 17.9 and Meg and I counted down the minutes until we saw them. And when we did…..we collapsed.
The squad came running with food, water and stories. Kelly had been talking to the rest of the Perfect Strangers all morning to tell them about our progress. And they told us Christi came through earlier looking great and feeling awesome. This aid station was fully stocked so despite having no appetite, I ate a triangle of PB&J and a fig newton.
JD asked me how I was feeling. I told him it was hard and my legs were really tight. He asked me what I needed and I responded with “to quit. I need to quit.” But I knew I wouldn’t. I told Meghan that my biggest fear is to have a DNF (did not finish) by my name so I knew we’d get through this. But dear god there were so many miles left. I wasn’t even halfway through.
So we started running again, happy to see a downhill starting our next leg. They promised they’d see us at 21 so we just needed to get there.
Before we started this race, we all read the detailed description the race organizers put out. Since the course wasn’t marked, it was hard to know exactly where we were in relation, but I can tell you that this one was well described. For the next 3 miles, we hung with The Devil’s Daughter and hated every second. The hills were insanely steep and there was no trail. We just climbed through the brush. Following the pink flags, we actually each grabbed a makeshift walking stick to help keep our balance as we climbed. Our heart rates were through the roof, sweat pouring off our body.
And then, we found this. Apparently the Blair Witch Project was filmed in Brown County State Park. How scary!
But much to our surprise, we heard rap music. And then our squad yelling! We weren’t supposed to see them until 21 and there they were in the road, blaring Dirty Rap Beats and cheering loudly! So what did we do? We danced.
We were so happy to see them, but we were also a bit worried. There was a guy with them who was also doing the 50K and who had emerged from the hills and woods to say “I am done. Please take me to the finish.” They fed him cookies and water and he was going to make it to the next aid station, but Kelly asked us to keep an eye out for him.
We passed him soon after and asked how he was doing. He unconvincingly told us he was ok but we were worried. But I’ll be damned if that man didn’t just hang in there, he finished the whole damn thing and faster than us!
I want to say that those next few miles were the worst, but there are so many miles on that course that were bad, it’s not a title I easily give out. But I can say they were bad. The hills were just dumb. I mean, ridiculous. And there was no trail. So we climbed a hill, while following pink flags that led us through thick leaves and over downed trees and swimming through thorny bushes. Meghan and I would just start to run again and then boom. Another unrelenting hill. We were frustrated and discouraged. And maybe a little delusional. Because at one point I said to Meg, “What would you do if you saw a monkey swinging through this canopy of trees right now?” She didn’t even look me like I was nuts, she just responded honestly “I’d be pretty damn excited.” We were losing it. But mile 21 wasn’t far and our squad was waiting. We heard their screams and ran toward them.
At this full blown aid station, the woman working told us we “looked fresh” which was a straight lie, but very sweet. We ate some food. I went to the bathroom. We took our time at these. We were in a hurry to get the damn thing over with, but we didn’t have a time goal so spending a few extra minutes with our friends was well worth it. Kelly updated us on Christi and they promised to see us at mile 25.
Chapter 8: LOST
Given how bad the last leg was, we were resolved to really run this next one. And when we turned back into the woods, we were greeted with a horse trail. It was gravel (easy to run on). It was downhill (what a relief!) It was wide (so we could run side by side). We were running well and our attitudes were so positive. And then, maybe 3/4 of a mile in, we met a fork in the road. But there were no pink flags to tell us which direction to go. I called JD and asked him to look at the map, but the map they provided was more a topographical one, not detailed enough to show forks. Another 50ker approached and he suggested we go left, as it was the more obvious track. So we ran about another quarter mile and still no flags. This concerned me. So we called JD back and he said we should be going South and we were going Northeast. Right at this time, we heard voices. The horsepeople. A group of about 8 people showed up on horses and we asked them if they knew where we should be going. They said no. So now, as we are turning around and backtracking, we are running alongside horses. Really? What the hell was I doing out there?!!!
So remember those awesome downhills? Well on the way back, they were uphills. So the three of us trudged back up assuming we had missed some flags. Also at this time, my friend Dan was texting me. Dan was hilarious this entire day. Sending me the best motivational messages that I would read aloud for us all to laugh at, he was on fire. When I told him we were lost, he asked me “so, are you going to have to eat a runner to survive?” As I read this to Meghan, the man next to us looked at me. I said “sorry… but it’s gonna be you.” Luckily he had a sense of humor.
We were almost back up by the aid station when we saw three more 50Kers coming our way. I asked them if they had seen any pink flags and they said no. So we figured we were on the right track the first time and back down the hills we all went. When the now 6 of us reached the fork, one guy ran ahead down the other trail (the one we didn’t try earlier). No flags. EFF. JD called me back and told me that he talked with Christi and at the entry to the woods, we were to have taken an immediate right. How did we miss this? Not once! But twice!
So back up those hills. And there they were. The pink flags right at the entry of the woods. I guarantee we missed them (all 6 of us!) because we desperately wanted to be running on the horse trail. Instead, the DWD race planners put us straight in the middle of brush and woods. This narrow path scraped our legs and we hurdled branches as we ran up and down more hills. Meghan and I did the math and we had gone a full two miles out of our way by getting lost. Though this was awful for her, it was actually good for me. I needed to find 5 miles to get to the full 50K distance and that meant when the race ended, I’d only need 3 more to go.
Chapter 9: The Tude
We had already gone 2 miles and yet had 4 more to go still before we’d see our squad. The first couple were up and down hills on a pretty rough trail. But soon after, there was flat ground (YES!) and we picked up the pace. I looked down and we were doing a 10:30/mile pace which I was thrilled with. There was a lot of mud, but we didn’t mind. And we also were at least around other runners now (our LOST crew) so we didn’t feel so alone. My attitude was really positive because with every minute we ran, we were closer to the finish. And walking just killed my soul. As we arrived in this grassy meadow with wild flowers everywhere, I actually noticed the beautiful scenery. Things were looking up.
And then out of nowhere, we hit a wall. No really, a mud wall. We were to scale this very steep hill that was just straight mud. At my first attempt, I slid down, cutting open my arms. We were on our hands and knees, ready to climb but had no footholds. Meghan found a tree root and was able to use that as leverage, so I followed her lead. Once at the top, we met another wall. This one, just as steep, but at least not muddy. We climbed. Then a few minutes later. Another hill. Though they were short, they were super steep. So our strategy was just to scale them as fast as possible, rest at the top. My heart was beating out of my chest. We were exhausted. In fact, when we reached some water where fishermen were, I was scared my heavy breathing would scare away the fish! Our attitudes had taken a big turn for the worse.
And then, we met these.
Stairs upon stairs upon stairs. Every time you thought you’d see the top? More stairs. So we went up them. Begrudgingly. With lots of cussing. The only saving grace is we knew we had to be less than 1/2 a mile from where the squad was. We needed to see them. We needed to rest. We needed a new tude.
I screamed loudly to see if they could hear us and they did. Jake responded. We ran to the voices. Kelly wasn’t there as she was at the finish waiting for Christi. Given our 40 minute “getting lost” episode, we were now way behind her and really were happy Kel was there for her. Jake and JD fed us food and water. And we laid on the ground. At this point, I was definitely NOT going to be adding any miles to the end of this race. I felt awful. My body hurt in places that made no sense (the top of my foot? my ribs?) and I just wanted it to be over. JD reminded me that an ultra marathon is anything over 26.2 and that by getting lost, I would finish at 28 miles – an ultra marathoner. That thought calmed me as I knew I would be able to be an ultra marathoner, but not have to run alone after the race. But it also meant that when Meghan crossed that finish line, she would have done 33 miles. AMAZING.
Chapter 10: Campgrounds and intervals
My GPS watch died but Jake was smart enough to give Meghan his. So she now was the timekeeper. We ran the next mile through campgrounds. As I stared at these tents, I imagined each of their picnic tables being an aid station. We weren’t running fast, but we were running. My foot hurt. Her quad hurt. I hadn’t taken any iBprofen this entire race to protect my stomach which meant my knee was on fire. But who could even tell? Everything hurt. Finally, we saw a bright orange shirt ahead of us. A volunteer! An aid station. We checked in and chatted with the woman manning the station. I told her that I didn’t feel like eating anything and she said it was normal – that I may not have an appetite for days. She encouraged me to suck the salt off a pretzel, and I did. I took a jolly rancher for sugar too. We told her we got 2 miles off course and she said that we weren’t the only ones. And she said that we only had about 5.5 more miles and that from what she heard, the course was mostly downhill. MUSIC TO OUR EARS. So Meg and I did intervals. We ran 2 minutes, walked 2 minutes. The course wasn’t that bad during this leg. Some downhills. A lot of mud. But definitely runnable. Problem was, our bodies weren’t runnable. Every footstep was hard. But golly darnit we wanted this damn thing over with.
Speaking of mud, it was so deep in parts that my foot got stuck in the mud, my shoe halfway off. Meghan literally had to come save me and lift my foot out for me. Perfectly normal.
Also at this time, we both admitted that we really didn’t enjoy this. We just didn’t find it nearly as fulfilling as a marathon. And it wasn’t the distance, because we could probably do a 31 mile race on a road. But when you add in mud and hills and thorns and horsepeople and slippery rocks, it was just mentally frustrating.
Chapter 11: Shoo fly, don’t bother me
As I mentioned at the beginning of this novella, I was in a bit of a rush yesterday morning. which meant I had full makeup on from the night before and my hair was coated in hairspray from my updo. No big deal really, until I met a horsefly. This mother effer decided to circle my head for a full 2 miles. And if it left me for a second, it went to Meghan. The constant buzzing in my ear drove me crazy. And the dumbass kept flying into my forehead! My patience was very limited at this point in the race so I just couldn’t handle it and at one point screamed “Get the hell away from me you GD fly!” I told Meghan had I been able to catch it, I would have gutted it with a stick and let it’s intestines fall out. (Because yes, it had to have a digestive system. It was that big).
Also around this time, I thought it would be wise to wash off the caked mud off my shoes in a puddle I found. As I dangled a foot in, I said “I am not sure how deep this is, but the water feels good on my….” and boom. I fell into the puddle, the water up to my shin. As I tried to keep my body from falling all the way in, Meghan and I erupted into hysterics. It was exactly what we needed – something lightharded and slapstick to bring smiles to our faces.
And by this time, I had run more than I had ever run before. I was an ultra marathoner.
We were receiving tons of messages from our friends wishing us luck and encouraging us in those final miles. And we kept our intervals up as much as possible. We were passed by some relay runners and we constantly checked our GPS to see how far we had left to go. We were so encouraged when we exited the woods and saw a street. We had to be close.
Chapter 12: Ski slopes and tadpoles
But, of course just because we weren’t in woods, didn’t mean we didn’t have a challenge ahead of us. We had to run down an old ski slope. It was steep and had we met it during the first half of the race, we would have run down it. But we didn’t trust our leg muscles. Mine were cramping and spazzing often so we took the hill gingerly. And then we were in a meadow with grasses up to our knees. It was hot and muggy by the water and without the trees to shade us.
But then like an oasis, we were in a creek. JD warned us that we’d have to run through a creek the final mile and we welcomed it. The cool water soothed our very achy feet. And I was so thirsty that I drank creek water. Remembering what Bear Grylls taught me about clean water in the wild, I picked an area that had moving water and drank. No lie – Aquafina might get their water from this creek. That’s how amazing it was. BUT….a few steps forward and we saw thousands of tadpoles. Cool. I probably am growing a frog inside me.
The creek deepened and we sloshed through water up to our knees. Meg said we were close to the finish and as soon as we exited the water, we heard them. Not just our squad, but everyone. We ran. Oh my god, did we run.
Chapter 14: The Faux Finish
I have to tell you, I have tears streaming down my face as I write this part. Because seeing our friends. Seeing the finish. My smile was bigger than it’s ever been. And the best part was that this race is small and intimate. And as we approached the finish, everyone cheered. We were the only two crossing at that time so it was all for us. People in lawn chairs stood and clapped. Strangers yelled. It was all for us. I felt like a queen. The clock said 9:39 when we finished. Which meant I had run for approximately 8 hours and 45 minutes. I couldn’t believe it took me that long to do 28 miles.
The lady at the end asked my name and age. And as she looped that medal around my neck, she handed me a huge bone. “Congratulations. You are 3rd in your age group!” OMG. What? No way. I found out Christi was 2nd and finished 2 hours before me and there were only 6 people total in our age bracket. But I won something! And then I immediately felt like a fraud.
I wasn’t going to add any miles. I was tired and wanted it to be over. I wasn’t going to do it because I didn’t care. I was already an Ultramarathoner. And then? They handed me that effing bone. I hadn’t run the full 50K and yet I had the bone. Had I started with the girls, I know I would have had the same time as Meghan as we stuck it together the whole way. It wasn’t about the time. It was about the distance. So as we took “finisher” pics, I turned to JD. He said “I’ve got my running shoes on. You wanna go find 3 miles?” And before the words even came out of my mouth, I knew I had to. The bone made me.
Chapter 16: 3 more miles
So I took my medal off and told the girls we’d be back. And JD and I started running. He wore Jake’s GPS and we took off on the road. We weren’t going fast – but we were at least running. I’d ask him about every two minutes how far we had gone and tried to pass time by recounting the entire race to him. We ran up a few little hills and dodged some fast cars, but the course was MUCH better than the woods. At 1.5 miles in, I took a walking break. And as I grabbed a thistle and started sucking on the petals, JD said “Who are you? Bear Grylls? (second reference throughout the day). What on earth are you doing?” I told him that the body of the petal was sweet, and I needed sugar. Perfecty normal.
JD was amazing. He encouraged me and told me I was great as my feet barely shuffled underneath me. These three miles felt like the fastest of the day, even though they surely weren’t. But being able to see what was ahead of me. Know exactly what I had to do next. I hurt and I labored, but with JD’s help, I did it. And when we saw the finish area, he told me to bring it. I laughed and said “Oh, you can’t tell? I am. This is all I’ve got!” And when I rounded the corner to see my friends once again, there was Christi and Jake screaming my name, and Meghan holding my medal. She looped it over my head and I collapsed on the ground. This time, I could truly celebrate. I had done a 50K. I was an ultra marathoner. I earned that bone.
We didn’t hang around for too long in Gnaw Bone after that as we all wanted food and showers. But I wore my medal the whole way home. I held my bone. I even cuddled with it as I took a nap. And later last night, when Meghan, Jake and Christi came over to my house, we told stories of the great adventure we had. The running, walking, climbing. The cursing and the laughing. The bleeding and falls and bird shit and horse flies and horsepeople and chipmunks. I truly believe that I will never do another ultra marathon again. I didn’t like it. But I did do it. Late start and all.
And I could not have done it without Christi as inspiration. She killed this race and did most of it alone. And there was no better partner in the woods than Meghan. I could not have run all those miles without her beside me and I am really glad we didn’t have to eat one another to survive. And for our cheerleaders: the ones in person – Jake, JD and Kelly. You guys were truly fantastic and made this race bearable. Thank you JD for helping me finish that 50K and for spending 10 hours wearing a “See Meggie Run” tshirt. And for those who texted me with all the encouragement and well wishes, thank you. I am constantly humbled by the people who love and support me.